Land usage attributed to corn ethanol production in the United States: Sensitivity to technological advances in corn grain yield, ethanol conversion, and co-product utilization

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Abstract

Background: Although the system for producing yellow corn grain is well established in the US, its role among other biofeedstock alternatives to petroleum-based energy sources has to be balanced with its predominant purpose for food and feed as well as economics, land use, and environmental stewardship. We model land usage attributed to corn ethanol production in the US to evaluate the effects of anticipated technological change in corn grain production, ethanol processing, and livestock feeding through a multi-disciplinary approach. Seven scenarios are evaluated: four considering the impact of technological advances on corn grain production, two focused on improved efficiencies in ethanol processing, and one reflecting greater use of ethanol co-products (that is, distillers dried grains with solubles) in diets for dairy cattle, pigs, and poultry. For each scenario, land area attributed to corn ethanol production is estimated for three time horizons: 2011 (current), the time period at which the 15 billion gallon cap for corn ethanol as per the Renewable Fuel Standard is achieved, and 2026 (15 years out). Results: Although 40.5% of corn grain was channeled to ethanol processing in 2011, only 25% of US corn acreage was attributable to ethanol when accounting for feed co-product utilization. By 2026, land area attributed to corn ethanol production is reduced to 11% to 19% depending on the corn grain yield level associated with the four corn production scenarios, considering oil replacement associated with the soybean meal substituted in livestock diets with distillers dried grains with solubles. Efficiencies in ethanol processing, although producing more ethanol per bushel of processed corn, result in less co-products and therefore less offset of corn acreage. Shifting the use of distillers dried grains with solubles in feed to dairy cattle, pigs, and poultry substantially reduces land area attributed to corn ethanol production. However, because distillers dried grains with solubles substitutes at a higher rate for soybean meal, oil replacement requirements intensify and positively feedback to elevate estimates of land usage. Conclusions: Accounting for anticipated technological changes in the corn ethanol system is important for understanding the associated land base ascribed, and may aid in calibrating parameters for land use models in biofuel life-cycle analyses. © 2014 Mumm et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

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Mumm, R. H., Goldsmith, P. D., Rausch, K. D., & Stein, H. H. (2014). Land usage attributed to corn ethanol production in the United States: Sensitivity to technological advances in corn grain yield, ethanol conversion, and co-product utilization. Biotechnology for Biofuels, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1754-6834-7-61

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